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When NYPD wears a Muslim topi

Police chaplaincy lets Khalid Latif embody both Islam and American culture.

By Correspondent / March 19, 2009

One man, two worlds: Khalid Latif preaches the Friday sermon at the Islamic Cultural Center, also known as the 96th Street Mosque, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Photo by Stephanie Keith/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

Around five in the morning one day in the summer of 2007, just as Imam Khalid Latif was preparing for the salatul-fajr, the obligatory prayer between dawn and sunrise, the phone in his small Manhattan apartment began to ring.

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He had been up late the night before, having just conducted a nikkah, a Muslim wedding ceremony, for a South Asian couple he knew from New York University, where he served as chaplain. Afterward, he offered to drive a few students back into the city, so he had not gotten home as early as he might have expected.

On the phone was an operations dispatcher from the New York Police Department (NYPD), where Imam Latif also served as a chaplain, having been named only three months earlier to the post. This was his first emergency call: Two cops had been shot, one fatally. He was to go to the hospital to minister to the families and fellow officers of the fallen.

He has had a number of emergency calls since then, but none has been for a Muslim officer or family. The eight members of the NYPD Chaplains Unit – a group of part-timers that includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews – take turns being on call. But even when the relevant denominational chaplain arrives, the first responder often stays. For six hours, Latif remained with the mother of the slain officer, an Orthodox Christian. She wept the entire time.

Latif recognizes the jarring cultural tableau he often presents to those he ministers. He is young, a 2004 graduate of New York University. Bearded, he wears a topi skullcap with his NYPD blue; his gold police badge bears his Pakistani name prominently. Indeed, part of his ministry, he says, is to help develop a particularly American form of Islam – one fully integrated into the social fabric of the United States.

“Day to day on the job, there’s the sensitivity trainings, culture immersion trainings – but it’s really about being there for Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” Latif says. “It’s a stressful job [for officers], and they need someone to talk to and someone who they feel will have their back, and stand up for them.”

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Few Muslim clerics have attempted to extend their ministries beyond their own folds. In the US, nearly 60 differing ethnicities, cultures, and languages practice varying forms of Islam. The tremulous cadences of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, are heard five times daily in parts of New York. But individual Muslim communities have remained mostly insular and separate.

In the past few years, as Latif has become a more visible figure in the emergence of an American form of Islam – he has turned down chaplaincies at Princeton and other universities to stay with the NYPD – he has grappled with how Americans view Muslims in a post-9/11 world. On the other side, as a young leader, he has also been seeking ways for Muslims to take part fully in such a diverse and predominantly non-Muslim culture – one that often remains suspicious and fearful of their beliefs.

And so he often wonders, what does it mean to be both Muslim and American? Like some ethnic Muslim-Americans, “we’re presented with Islam, but we’re not presented with an Islam that necessarily works in the context we’re in,” Latif says. “There’s a lot of questioning of how you remain true to traditional cultural norms ... while maintaining yourself and fitting into a broader American society.”

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